Happiness

Pier 69, Seattle Waterfront

I remember the optimism of going home to someone. And how, months after the divorce, a part of me still lived back there on Roy Street. Waking to the sunrise in my attic room and thinking it was really from the second-story bay window there.

How grief and change can displace one like that. And you fall out of time.

Going home to my husband in the afternoons, I bought a slice of his favorite coconut cake and tucked it into my grocery bag. The whole walk home, I glanced at it inside the plastic casing. The satisfaction of carrying happiness to someone.

As if we could.

I set our slices of cake side by side on the hutch, boiled the water for tea, dropped the jasmine pearls into the water and leaned into the steam so I could watch the slow-spreading stain of gold.

And then I sealed the tea into a thermos, packed forks and napkins. My husband returned from his lunch shift at the restaurant, and we drove to Magnolia.

West.

The direction we go to escape, my high school English teacher Mr. Hansen used to say.

And we parked atop a bluff overlooking Puget Sound. We watched the sun sink behind the Olympic Mountains, the container ships drifting north from Harbor Island, our tea steaming the windows. My husband flipped the pages of his Thai graphic novels. I sketched scenes for my novel.

Happiness, I wanted to believe, was really so simple.

The problem being, in the year of the divorce, that yes. It is.

Sometimes.

And the problem then, on those afternoons above the Sound, being that sometimes it isn’t.

You try to think it is, because it’s warm and safe there. But it isn’t.

We worked ten years to build a bridge between our differences. But still, after everything, the bridge was no good for transport. Sure, it was there. We could stand on it. But no one crossed by it from his space to mine, and back again. Not even ourselves.

Out of our different languages and cultural backgrounds, our different nationalities, temperaments, worldviews, values, and lifestyles, we could forge no common language.

And so we sat, in the last glare of sunshine, too bright on the windshield, sweating behind the visors. Just six inches away, yet still–our worlds completely separate.

When I came around that corner in the restaurant and found him with another woman, pressed against her, his fingers tracing down her throat, his breath upon the nape of her neck, it wasn’t shock. So much as recognition.

The truth neither one of us had the courage to say.

I gave us another year. Two.

And then I filed for divorce.

I boxed up my clothes and books and teacups.

And then I locked myself in the bathroom and took the shears to my hair. Finished off what was left of it. Not half an inch left on my scalp.

I didn’t want men looking at me that way again. I had never been a single adult. Not since the age of 20. And the games, the lines other people knew–I didn’t. I didn’t want to mislead anybody. I didn’t want to look like a woman who knew.

“A male cancer patient,” a friend said.

“A Holocaust survivor,” my brother said.

“Excuse me, sir,” a child said at the library.

And I smiled. That was about right. If a man was going to look at me, he would have to see past the butchered hair, past the boyish figure. There would have to be something between myself and another human being already there. Not built yet. But a foundation for a bridge. The piers already sunk into riverbed.

Because I didn’t want, ever again, the kind of happiness I had to talk myself into.

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